Feast of the Immaculate Conception, 8th December, Festivals

Feast of the Immaculate Conception, 8th December

Igreja do Bom Jesus do Monte, Braga
Igreja do Bom Jesus do Monte, Braga

The Feast of the Immaculate Conception (Festa da Imaculada Conceição) is a religious holiday in Portugal to celebrate the conception of the Virgin Mary, who Catholics believe was born without original sin. Nossa Senhora da Imaculada Conceição (Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception) is the patron saint of Portugal and the day is a public holiday. The main focus of the day for Catholics is to attend a Mass, but in many places there are also processions through the streets, where a statue of Mary is carried. She is also the patron saint of fishermen and in Quarteira, a coastal town in the Algarve, after being paraded through the streets of Quarteira, she is put on a boat and sailed around the Quarteira coast to bless the sea, accompanied by the boats of the local fishermen.

Banks, post offices and other public services are closed on this day (this includes some museums) and public transport runs to a reduced timetable. However, large shopping centres and shops in tourist areas should be open as usual. Churches will be closed to tourists while Mass is taking place.

Festivals, The St Martin’s Day magusto, 11th November

The St Martin’s Day magusto, 11th November

Chestnut vendor Lisbon
Chestnut vendor, Lisbon

St Martin’s Day (Dia de São Martinho) is an autumn festival which coincides with the ripening of the chestnuts and the production of the new wine. St Martin was a soldier who lived in the fourth century and in a famous legend it is said that when he was returning home one day during a terrible storm he came across a beggar who was suffering in the harsh weather. Martin took off his cape, cut it in half and gave one half to the beggar. At that moment the storm abated and the sun came out. Martin gave up the army, became a monk and later the Bishop of Tours, and was ultimately canonized. St Martin’s Day is celebrated on 11th November and often on this date the weather is unseasonably warm and sunny; this is known as o verão de São Martinho (St Martin’s summer). The Portuguese celebrate this day by having a magusto. The magusto varies from region to region, but always involves socializing while eating roast chestnuts and drinking água-pé, jeropiga or the new wine. Água-pé (literally meaning ‘foot water’, from the time when they trod the grapes to make wine) is a drink made from the mixture of grape skins, seeds and pulp (left after the juice has been extracted) with water added to it. Jeropiga is similar to agua-pé but also has a spirit added to it. In rural areas the villagers gather around a bonfire in which the chestnuts are roasted (the word ‘magusto’ is thought to come from the Latin ‘magnus’ meaning ‘big’ and ‘ustus’ meaning ‘burnt’). Some people rub the ashes from the bonfire on their faces, a custom which may date back to pagan times where it was believed that the ashes would ward off evil spirits. In more urban areas the bonfire is replaced with the ubiquitous roast-chestnut vendors. There are often stalls selling regional produce, sometimes there is a pig roast, accompanied by music and dancing.

As the Portuguese saying goes, ‘Água-pé, jeropiga, castanhas e vinho, faz-se uma boa festa pelo São Martinho.’ (equivalent to ‘Água-pé, jeropiga, chestnuts and wine, the party for St Martin is fine.’)

All Saints' Day, 1st November, Festivals

All Saints’ Day, 1st November

Porto (0731) 00001

All Saints’ Day (Dia de Todos os Santos) is a Christian festival which is observed in Portugal, as in many other Catholic countries, as a public holiday. As the name suggests, it is a feast day for all the saints, but in particular for those who don’t have a feast day at other times of the year. On this day Catholics attend a Mass and then visit the cemetery where family members are buried to lay flowers and light candles on their graves (which will have been cleaned in preparation) to guide their way into heaven, combining All Saints’ Day with All Souls’ Day (Dia de Todas as Almas) which is on 2nd November, but is not a public holiday in Portugal. The cemeteries are a hive of social activity on this day.

While Halloween is not really celebrated in Portugal, in some rural parts of the country there is a tradition reminiscent of ‘Trick or Treat’ which happens on the morning of All Saints’ Day where groups of children go from house to house in their neighbourhood asking for Pão por Deus (Bread for God’s sake). The children sing songs or recite verses such as: ‘Bolinhos e bolinhós/Para mim e para vós/Para dar aos finados/Qu’estão mortos, enterrados.’ (‘Cakes and buns/For me and for you/To give to the departed/That are dead, buried.’) They are rewarded with a piece of sweet bread, cake, fruit, nuts, sweets or even money. One theory is that this All Saints’ Day tradition started in Lisbon after the earthquake of 1755, as it was on 1st November of that year that the Great Lisbon Earthquake destroyed the city leaving those who survived desperate for food. The earthquake hit Lisbon at 9.40 in the morning, when people were in church for the All Saints’ Day Mass, and what the earthquake didn’t destroy the subsequent fires started by the church candles did.

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Banks, post offices and other public services are closed on this day (this includes some museums) and public transport runs to a reduced timetable. However, large shopping centres and shops in tourist areas should be open as usual. Churches will be closed to tourists while Mass is taking place.


Festival of Saint John, Porto, 23rd-24th June

Festival of Saint John, Porto, 23rd-24th June

Porto (788)

The Festa de São João (Festival of St John the Baptist) in Porto is not for the faint-hearted. It is loud, brash and slightly insane. Imagine New Year’s Eve after 10 double espressos. The São João celebrations are part of the Popular Saints celebrations that take place in various regions of Portugal in June: namely, the Festival of St Anthony, which is celebrated in Lisbon on 12th-13th June; the Festival of St John, which is celebrated in Porto and Braga on 23rd-24th June; and the Festival of St Peter, which is celebrated in various cities, such as Póvoa de Varzim, Sintra, Montijo and Évora on 28th-29th June. All the festivals have links to pagan summer solstice celebrations and certain customs from pagan times still exist, such as jumping over bonfires and giving friends, family or a girlfriend/boyfriend a plant. In Porto, the Festa de São João also has something unique to Porto, the tradition of hitting people on the head with a martelinho (a toy plastic hammer). Originally people would carry a tall plant called elephant garlic (also known as wild leek), which has a large flower, and hit people with that, but some enterprising businessman in the 1970s came up with the idea of introducing soft, squeaky, plastic hammers for the festival and the idea caught on.

The main celebrations are held on the evening of 23rd June, but São João events start occurring in the city over a month before, including concerts, street entertainment, and events for children. We were lucky enough to be in Porto in the week leading up to the big night and there was a sense of anticipation in the air. On every street there was bunting and other decorations. In shop windows, on café tables, and on market stalls were the ubiquitous manjericos, pots of a basil-like herb with quadras, four-line verses, stuck in them. (The Porto-based newspaper, O Jornal de Notícias, holds an annual quadras-writing competition in June which is very popular and gets around 5000 entries.) Walking around the streets of Porto on our first day we came across a full-size rotating ball of martelinhos in Largo de São Domingos, part art installation, part fairground ride and very popular with young and old alike. One afternoon we came across a group of people in traditional costume who started playing traditional music and dancing on a street corner. The joy of it was they seemed to be performing for their own pleasure, not for applause or for money from the passers-by.

These small events are like appetizers before the main day, which starts early in the morning of the 23rd with people setting up martelinho stalls all over the city. Often the ‘stall’ is just a sheet on the ground with a random selection of plastic hammers on it. Along with the martelinho stalls are the plethora of Superbock stalls along the riverfront on both sides of the river. This is where everyone will be congregating later in the night to watch the fireworks and they will be in need of liquid refreshment in the form of one of Portugal’s most popular beers, Superbock, who, judging by the number of advertisements around the city, seem to have a monopoly on the event. Also along the riverfront, from lunchtime onwards, is the distinctive smell (and smoke) of sardines being grilled. Added to that are the stalls roasting meat on spits, others selling traditional cakes, biscuits and sweets, and others selling farturas and churros (fried dough snacks), candy floss and popcorn, and we realised that we didn’t need to worry about where to have dinner that evening.

We discovered that São João is also an excellent day to go shopping, as many shops have a São João sale where everything is discounted. The shops, like everywhere else in Porto on this day, are very busy, but there is a wonderful holiday atmosphere wherever you go.

As complete novices to the São João hammer tradition we were a little unsure of what to do at first, until a little boy of about 6 hit me on the head with a hammer and then pointed to my hammer and then to his head. It seems that if you are hit you should return the hit. Once I’d gained my confidence I was able to hit strangers without waiting for them to hit me first. It was great fun, although Neil was getting a bit worried about my enthusiasm for this. Early in the evening the main people hitting with the hammers seemed to be children and tourists and I was beginning to wonder if the whole thing was a gimmick, but as the sun set the locals of all ages began hitting in earnest and the sound of squeaking filled the streets, along with the sound of whistles, which many of the hammers also contain. As well as the people wielding hammers were people carrying the stalks of elephant garlic, usually sadistic young men or equally sadistic old women, who took pleasure in thrusting the flower into people’s faces. It’s all part of the São João fun.

As evening turned into night the people continued to pour into the riverside area and the sense of expectation continued to rise. It is estimated that over 200,000 people attend the Festa de São João. Around us on the grass where we had chosen to sit to watch the fireworks families and groups of friends had set up picnic rugs and brought out bottles of wine and plastic cups. In the hours leading up to midnight, everywhere we looked were groups of people setting off sky lanterns. It seemed a dangerous combination of drunkenness, macho competitiveness, flimsy paper and fire in a very crowded environment. The hope was that the lit lantern would float gracefully up into the sky to join the others, but the reality was that many fell back into the crowd as a burning bundle of paper or even got caught in trees. No harm was done and it all seemed to fit in with the slightly anarchic São João atmosphere.

Finally, at midnight, the highlight of the whole Festa de São João kicked off: the firework display. It started with the opening riff from ‘Thunderstruck’ by AC/DC along with flashing lights on the Dom Luís 1 Bridge and on the words ‘Thunder’ fireworks exploded from the bridge. The rest of the 15-minute firework spectacular was choreographed against other rock standards, with fireworks coming from several boats in the middle of the River Douro as well as from the bridge. We had positioned ourselves on the Vila Nova de Gaia side of the river opposite one of the firework boats and from our position we got a memorable view of the fireworks against the backdrop of historic Porto, in particular the Cathedral and Archbishop’s Palace, the Torre dos Clérigos, São Francisco Church and the Cais da Ribeira. The last few minutes of the firework display was loud and frenetic, which seemed a fitting end to an excellent display, and was to ‘A Minha Casinha’ by Xutos & Pontapés, Portugal’s number one rock band. This track was a perfect segue into the next stage of our planned night, but we all know about the best laid plans of mice and men! Xutos & Pontapés were due to start playing a concert in Avenida dos Aliados in the historic centre of Porto at 1am. This meant that we would have to cross the only footbridge to get to the other side of the river. For safety reasons the police were only letting a certain number of people cross the bridge in one direction at a time. I will gloss over the next hour or so of the night and the drunken crush to get onto the bridge, but by the time we arrived on the Porto side it was nearly 2am and the desire to stand in another mass of people to see Xutos & Pontapés had gone.

Instead, we collapsed into bed at 2am, while outside our hotel window a party was in full swing and at full volume. There was to be no sleep in the city that night. Bom São João!


Portugal Day, 10th June

Portugal Day, 10th June

Porto (0315a)

Portugal Day or, to give it its full title, Portugal, Camões and the Portuguese Communities Day, is a national holiday celebrated on 10th June and, as its name suggests, is a combined celebration of Portugal and all the Portuguese communities around the world and of Portugal’s most famous poet, Luís Vaz de Camões, who died on 10th June 1580.

Camões, who is known as the Portuguese Shakespeare, was a colourful character if everything that has been written about him is to believed (which it isn’t!). His date of birth is unknown, but is estimated as 1524 and the facts of his life are sketchy, which has resulted in various myths developing about him. He was a member of the lower ranks of the aristocracy and after being exiled from Lisbon joined the army and fought in Morocco, where it is said he lost an eye. A few years later he was sent to India as a soldier to avoid a jail sentence and during this time was shipwrecked, where legend has it that he swam ashore holding the manuscript of his most famous poem, Os Lusíadas (The Lusiads), above the water to save it. Os Lusíadas (published in 1572) is an epic poem which has many layers to it, written with reference to classical epic poems such as The Aeneid and The Odyssey. Its central subject is Vasco da Gama’s voyage to and discovery of India in 1498, resulting in a brief but glorious period where Portugal dominated the sea routes and trading points in the Persian Gulf, Indian Ocean and South China seas. By the time Camões was in India, Portugal’s domination was in decline and it could be argued that Os Lusíadas was partly written to restore national pride.

Each year a city in Portugal is named by the President to be the host city of the official Portugal Day celebrations, which include military displays, political speeches and an awards ceremony at which the President bestows the Honorific Orders of Portugal to Portuguese people who have achieved personal success or have given distinguished service to Portugal. Throughout Portugal there are celebrations which include live music, firework displays and street parties. In some towns and cities the celebrations extend into the ‘Popular Saints’ celebrations: the festival of St Anthony (12th-13th June) in Lisbon, the festival of St John (23rd-24th June) in Porto and Braga, and the festival of St Peter (28-29th June) in various cities, such as Póvoa de Varzim, Sintra, Montijo and Évora. Portugal Day is also celebrated in cities around the world which have large Portuguese expatriate communities, including Toronto (Canada), London (UK), several cities in the USA, Brazil and Macau. In these communities the focus is on all things Portuguese, possibly more so than in Portugal itself, and there are parades, Portuguese folk music and dancing, concerts with popular Portuguese musicians, traditional Portuguese food and other cultural events.

In 2016 the Portuguese host city was Lisbon and the celebrations also extended to Paris.

Corpus Christi, Festivals

Corpus Christi

Monstrance, National Archaeology Museum of Lisbon
Monstrance in National Archaeology Museum of Lisbon


Corpus Christi (Dia do Corpo de Deus) is an important religious festival in Portugal and is a recently reinstated national holiday. The date of the festival is movable, but occurs on a Thursday in either late May or June, 60 days after Easter Sunday. Corpus Christi, which means ‘Body of Christ’, celebrates the Holy Communion, based on the Last Supper in the Bible where Jesus gave bread and wine to his disciples and described the bread as his body and the wine as his blood. In every Catholic church, on this day, there is a Mass where the bread is consecrated, followed by a procession where the priest carries the consecrated bread in a special vessel through the streets, followed by the congregation. Some towns have an intricate carpet of flowers along the procession route. As the day is a public holiday, banks, post offices and many small shops will be closed and there is likely to be a reduced public transport service.

Carvoeiro Black and White Night 2015, Festivals

Carvoeiro Black & White Night 2015


Who would have thought that Carvoeiro, once a sleepy little fishing village, would become Algarve Party Central? Well, that is exactly what has happened for one night a year since 2014 when Carvoeiro started hosting the summer solstice party known as Black & White Night. The event is organised by Ibérica Eventos & Espectáculos and the Lagoa town council and has grown from 10,000 party-goers in 2014 to 20,000 in 2015. The main roads in to and out of the town are closed to traffic, and on two of these roads stages are erected and restaurants and bars are able to extend their seating area into the road. It means that there is something happening all over the centre of the village, not just in the square by the beach.

We were lucky enough to be in Carvoeiro for the 2015 Black & White Night. The festivities got underway at 8.30pm when a pair of horses, one black and one white, and their stylish riders, walked down the Estrada do Farol. We watched the horses pass by from our table outside one of the restaurants on the hill. We had wisely booked a table the day before as, even with the extra seating, restaurants were struggling to cope with the deluge of people into the town. Be prepared to make new friends during the night, as seats at the tables outside the bars in the town centre are at a premium and we found ourselves sharing a table with complete strangers. We are normally quite reserved people, but the party atmosphere was infectious and by the end of the night we were happily chatting to our table companions.

Following the dress code, we were dressed in black and white, although we didn’t go as far as to dress in this year’s theme of ‘Burlesque’. From the start, the town was buzzing with activity and with crowds of people everywhere. As we walked down the Estrada do Farol we were drawn to the Algarve Jazz Orchestra on the large stage near the bottom of the hill playing big band standards. I noticed that next to the stage was a large screen and later found out that the film The Jazz Singer was going to be shown. I love the idea of watching a film al fresco on a warm summer night, but I wondered how the dialogue was going to be heard over the noise from the rest of the town. This turned out not to be a problem, as it was the 1927 version of the film with title cards, that was being shown, although I secretly would have preferred to see the Neil Diamond version! The entertainment was well organised, and when something finished on one stage, something else started on another. The entertainment on the stages on Estrada do Farol and Rua do Barranco started much earlier than the entertainment in the square, which meant that the businesses on these roads were able to share in the success of the night. There was an eclectic mix of entertainers, all connected in some way to the theme of burlesque. In the tradition of American burlesque shows from the 1930s, striptease acts in various guises featured heavily on three of the four stages, including a Gypsy Rose Lee-style dancer with feather fans called Lady Myosotis and  a male striptease act called Senhor Sardinha Boylesque. I do question whether this type of act is appropriate at an event like this, and as there were so many children about the town during the night, I’m sure some parents had some awkward questions to answer! Live music also featured throughout the night and, as well as the Algarve Jazz Orchestra, tango music was performed by Mariel Martinez & La Porteña and on the stage in the town square, Jasmina Jolie & Cosmopolitan Cabaret performed a selection of torch songs made famous by singers such as Édith Piaf and Billie Holiday.

No party is complete without a DJ and there were three at this party, playing music from different eras, which appealed to the wide-ranging demographic. People were literally dancing in the streets. DJ Charlie Mysterio played music from the 1920s to the 1950s, then a Carvoeiro favourite, DJ Alexandre Ramos, played music from the 1960s to the 1990s and, finally, once all the older people had made their way back home, DJ Charlie Spot set up his own stage on top of the toilet block overlooking the beach and thousands of people made their way onto the beach to dance until 3am, when the party officially ended, to hits from 2000 to the present day. It was quite a sight to see so many people crowded on to the compact town beach.

It was a perfect night. The air was hot and the sky was clear, with a pretty crescent moon. Despite the large number of people and an increased police presence we witnessed no trouble. The clean-up operation, after the party ended in the early hours, was incredibly efficient. There was no evidence that anything out of the ordinary had happened, except for a few bleary-eyed waiters the next day!